Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Living With a Korean Family: Part 2

As I've told you all before, I live with my Korean in-laws. Here are some photos I've been collecting to show what life (especially culinary life!) is like in a Korean household:

Mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm! Now what might THOSE intriguing things be?! Those, my friends, are the DWIN JANG bricks my mother-in-law recently brought back from Korea! Or rather, they are dried bricks of mashed, fermented soybeans that will soon be soaked in brine to make dwin jang, which is a fermented soybean paste used in soup broths and sauces. For those of you who are familiar with Japanese miso paste, this is very similar, but the Korean version is much, much stronger.

Here's how dwin jang is made. You boil a crapload of soybeans until they're soft. I think you then mash them through some sort of wire mesh to remove the skins from the beans, but I'm not 100% of that. Anyway, the beans end up mashed. Then they are compacted into the bricks you see here. In Korea, they are dried outside (I believe it's done during cool, dry seasons) for a while, until the outer surface is dry, and then they are brought in the house to dry through to the core. (The reason they are left outside at first is because they initially have a strong smell, though by the time the surfaces are dry, they have no strong smell.)

Notice the mold you see on the bricks in the two photos below. This is good mold. And any harmful molds or bacteria will be killed by the salty brine the bricks will soon be soaked in.

See the big pottery jar in the photo below? Soon, when the weather gets sunny, my mother-in-law will put the bricks into this jar and fill the jar with very salty brine. She will put a thin white cloth over the top of the jar, and on top of that cloth, a pottery lid. During the daytime, she will take the lid off and let the sun shine down on the white cloth to kill any mold that might try to form on the surface of the jar's contents. Over time, the soy bean bricks will soften and expand into a thick paste at the bottom of the jar. As the bean paste sediment settles, a dark liquid will be left at the top of the jar. This, my friends, is the soy sauce we all know and love! My mother-in-law skims it off with a ladle and uses it in cooking. All in all, it takes several months for the dwin jang paste and soy sauce to become ready to eat. But it's worth the hard work and long wait, because this stuff is delicious!

Moving on... Below is a bottle of red ginseng tonic. Koreans love red ginseng (and so do I). It is bitter, but is supposed to have great health benefits. Especially for you men! Need some romantic jumper cables, fellas? Don't choose Viagra! Take red ginseng tonic instead! Make love like a Tae Kwon Do master!

This is a jar of fermented blackberries my mother-in-law picked last fall. Here, they are being drained to give us the sweet blackberry wine we often drink at large family gatherings.

Onto kimchee! There are hundreds of types of kimchee, some spicy, some not. (Remember, the hot pepper didn't come to Korea until the 1700's, so for those of you who can't handle spicy food, there are still many types of kimchee you can eat!) The most common types of kimchee are made from Chinese cabbage or Korean radishes, but just about any vegetable can be made into kimchee. I've tried cucumber and green onion kimchee before, which are both excellent. In Korea, you can go to a kimchee museum and try samples of kimchee made from all kinds of roots and leafy green vegetables.

This is a bag of fresh chili powder my mother-in-law brought back from Korea. Her relatives own a pepper farm, so this is the freshest, highest quality stuff you can get:

On the counter, you can see halved Chinese cabbages in bowls. The night before, they were rinsed and then dipped in brine. The brine was not rinsed off of them until morning. Do you see the metal pot on the floor? Can you guess what's inside?

That would be the hot pepper paste. It is made from chili powder, garlic, cooked sticky rice, salt, ginger, and a little Vietnamese fish sauce, all pureed together.

The hot pepper paste (along with chopped green onions, Korean chives, and Korean radishes cut into julienne strips) is smeared all over the surface of each cabbage, and in between all the leaves. The outer leaves are then tucked around the cabbage halves like this, and then placed tightly in jars to ferment. After a few days of fermentation, they will be kept in a special kimchee refrigerator:

My mother-in-law and two relatives preparing all the cabbage halves. Kimchee is labor intensive, so it's easier and more fun if you have people helping you.

On a different day, my mother-in-law made some kimchee that wasn't spicy. Here are the radishes and cabbages she bought:

The type of kimchee she is making here is called "mool kimchee" (water kimchee). It is pickled in a brine flavored with ginger, garlic, and Asian pear. It is DELICIOUS! The brine is just salty enough to kill bad bacteria, but not so salty that you can't drink it. The brine has a slightly carbonated feel when you drink it. Once mool kimchee has been fermented in jars for a few days, it is refrigerated and eaten. It ferments much faster than regular kimchee, so it is made in smaller batches and eaten more quickly.

Finished mool kimchee:

Do you remember my last post about living with a Korean family? I showed a picture of steamed wild sesame (perilla) leaves that had just been put in a jar with soy sauce to ferment. Well, they're still fermenting! These things can be left in a jar for ages. Seriously, you can eat from the same batch for two or three years, and it is perfectly fine:

A few miscellaneous photos...

One of the most fascinating things about living with people from a different culture is the differing concepts of how kitchens ought to be arranged. I grew up in a house where food and dishes were always kept in very separate cupboards, but in my in-laws' kitchen, it is common practice to keep food and dishes together in some of the cupboards. (Though for the most part, they are kept separate.) The thing that has been hardest for me to get used to is that the food is often kept in open, uncovered bowls. Now, it is usually dry things. I'm not talking about open bowls of soup or other liquid things in the cupboards. Instead, it will be something like an open bowl of dried seaweed sitting in the same cupboard as our clean rice bowls. The one that is hardest for me to get used to: open bowls of tiny dried anchovies (used to flavor soup broth) that are left in the cupboards with dinner plates and soup bowls. EVERYTHING in the cupboard ends up smelling like dried fish! In the picture below, you can see an open bowl of flour on the bottom shelf among the dishes. This will probably be used later in the day to make breaded fried sweet potato slices.

Here we have bags of dried herbs sandwiched in between the dishes!

One last picture. You never wear shoes inside Korean homes. I have grown so accustomed to this that when I go to American homes and my hosts tell me I can leave my shoes on, I feel like you would probably feel if you wore your tennis shoes in your bed! Of course, not having your shoes on makes it inconvenient if you want to dash outside for a second, to get the mail or something. So many Korean households have a few pairs of random, communal slip-on shoes placed outside the door that anyone can use to run outside for a second. I think my father-in-law probably bought most of our communal shoes at the thrift store! (His favorite place to go.) This was very strange for me when I first lived with them. Americans don't usually share shoes. By contrast, in this household, any guest that comes over is likely to slip on a pair of these shoes to go look at my father-in-law's garden. Now I've gotten used to this, and I think it's really convenient.

That's all for now... more to come!


  1. We call it MEJOO instead of DWIN JANG. MEJOO is mainly used for making DWIN JANG or GAN JANG(say sauce).

  2. I love seeing the process of how all these things are made! And I also love the idea of communal slip-on shoes. This would work perfectly for me. However, I know that if left anything uncovered in my cupboards I would end spilling it everywhere. I'm the kind of person lids and sippy cups were made for...

  3. wonderful info! Now onto those wonderful spiced peanuts that you brought to CO...and we added to the rice...I think.